Listening to a Bored 17-Year-Old Transformed Me and My Business During the Pandemic

I learned more from bored, antsy, innovative teenagers during the pandemic than I have in my entire entrepreneurial career

Teenage girl laying down upside down on a couch using her smartphone
Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images

I run digital companies in the edtech, information product, consulting, and e-learning spaces, and I have for years. When Covid became an official pandemic — and things like virtual schooling and remote work became ubiquitous across the country — my initial plan was to maintain the status quo.

Last March, I donned a “this too shall pass” attitude, as I’m guessing many of us did. I thought perhaps I might see a slight bump in sales for certain businesses, simply because people were home and conceivably had more time to view my companies’ ads and partake in the digital products we sell.

But I also thought of the flip side: As the economy tanked and unemployment skyrocketed, perhaps our sales would plummet, too. Discretionary income was getting a lot harder to come by, and it would be pretty biased of me to believe any of my companies’ products should take precedence over essential consumer staples like food, toiletries, and household items.

One thing (I thought) I knew, for sure: Now was not the time to shake up our years-honed marketing strategies or change our offers and price points at the last minute. I had no intention of making rash or overly reactive decisions. Plus, it also seemed like a lot of work for an uncertain payoff — an unnecessary risk we didn’t need to take.

A 17-year-old former customer told me I was wrong

When you own a fledgling company or an early stage startup, you have the unique opportunity to interact directly with your customers, one-on-one. It’s one of the key advantages of being small. If you make a concerted effort, you can get to know your customers on a first-name basis. You can dig deep into their experiences, aspirations, and receive authentic feedback.

They were our beta users. Our concept testers. The people who believed in us and gave us a chance when our company and offers were unknown and little-proven.

I did this with a handful of customers for my most recent venture in the e-learning space, one in which we aimed to provide an educational accelerator for young, aspiring entrepreneurs. We had launched our company with a 40-student application-only focus group. Among the students in that focus group, I’ve kept an ongoing dialogue with about a handful of them — even years later.

They were our beta users. Our concept testers. The people who believed in us and gave us a chance when our company and offers were unknown and little-proven. And they helped us iron out the kinks and validate our business concept.

But the reason I’ve kept an ongoing conversation with that handful of beta testers isn’t that they pad my ego and tell me how “right” I was in building this business. It’s actually because they’re the ones who are candid enough to tell me when I’m, in fact, wrong. And at the start of the pandemic, that’s exactly what this one former customer did.

Can you change your entire strategy in two weeks?

As a 17-year-old with only a peripheral understanding of my company’s marketing strategy, he probably didn’t realize all of what his request entailed. Not from a tech, planning, automation, outreach, or marketing perspective. But that didn’t matter.

He said to forget all that. To forego the typical planning and marketing, in lieu of addressing the immediate emergency plaguing his peers: boredom, depression, isolation, and purposelessness.

“Teens need your product now. Why make them wait? Why limit who, when, and how you serve them? Why price out the market that could most benefit? I’m bored out of my mind, and so are all my friends. We NEED something to do. Heck, I’d love to intern for you and help you make it happen. We just want to do something.” — Suggestions from the 17-year-old former customer.

So we did it. All of it.

Oh, and we did hire him as an intern, along with two other former customers. They were peers, friends, brand champions, and yes, they did help make it happen. They jumped in and took the reins on marketing, customer outreach, and even operations as we scrambled to switch up our strategy and offer structure. A couple of them still work for us today.

A series of emails and referrals did more in two weeks than the prior two months of paid advertising

We tested out his suggestions on a modestly sized email and referral list. Within days, we saw responses like we’d never seen before. My team and I, along with our interns, worked more during the summer of the pandemic than we had in the entire year prior.

We were nimble. We ran multiple concurrent live and prerecorded programs and offers of varied structures. We allowed our customers to continue to tell us what they wanted. And we changed our offerings to cater to them.

Our products enabled teens to turn ideas into businesses, as well as to boost their résumés with an impressive differentiator. We expected Ivy League hopefuls and Shark Tank enthusiasts to comprise most of our customer base as historically, they had. Now, we welcomed a new influx of customers: Customers who didn’t have university acceptance or seven-figure teen CEO on the forefront of their radar. These new customers were different — and they were coming in fast.

But believe it or not, the seasonally uncharacteristic consumer behavior and subsequent uptick in sales wasn’t the big takeaway. However, we did need that uptick to access the data that was the real takeaway.

2020 proved to me that the next generation cares more about impact than income

Yes, we saw positive results when it came to sales. However, that wasn’t the biggest surprise or the most rewarding thing we witnessed in 2020.

You might think 2020 was a perfect year to start an online business. I mean, what else are you going to do? And trust me, the opportunity was there — especially for the “bored at home” youth. I know more than a few teens who’ve made six figures selling products and services online during the pandemic.

But that didn’t shock me. Many teens these days are innovative, resilient, and resourceful, and the idea that they could use these skills to turn a profit isn’t a far stretch. But despite their newfound free time, some of these teens had more than profit on their minds. These were teens whose high school experience had been turned upside down, and while they attempted to master remote schooling and cope with isolation from their friends, many still had the altruistic ambition to deliver groceries to older adults and get involved with mask-making nonprofits.

Among the hundreds of entrepreneurial teens my company worked with, we saw a different crop in 2020

A batch of teens with a whole different focus. The most surprising, rewarding thing we witnessed wasn’t the diversity of innovation; we’ve seen that before. It was the awareness of systemic inequality, coupled with a deep desire to help others who are struggling. It was an emphasis on impact over income. A desire to change the world, rather than to rule it.

I would estimate that more than 30% of the teen entrepreneurs we worked with chose to implement a charitable initiative into their businesses. In prior years, that number used to be under 10%. At least 20% of the teens we worked with aimed to build a nonprofit. That used to be under 5%.

One student scrapped her entire planned business at its final stages when she realized she had a heart for something else: education equity, income equality, and closing the literacy gap. This is coming from a student who lives in an affluent part of Los Angeles and attends an expensive private school. Her nonprofit, alone, has donated over 30,000 books to kids living in poverty.

And yes, she’s received an array of flattering publicity and recognition, all well-deserved. But one thing I can guarantee: She didn’t do it for the acclaim. She didn’t do it for the résumé. She didn’t do it to “out-do” her peers. She did it because she cares. And that’s the biggest, craziest thing I’ve seen come across my desk hundreds of times in the past year.

If this is what the next generation of entrepreneurs, leaders, and changemakers looks like? I think we’re all going to be okay in the coming decades.

How did the pandemic change me and my business?

By adding dimension. These outwardly focused entrepreneurial teens showed me that yes, when we teach students about business, we should focus on impact just as much as (or more than) financial ROI.

That might seem obvious to some, but as a full-time entrepreneur and startup consultant, ROI and achieving financial profitability is a big focus of mine, my companies’, and my clients’ goals. And that isn’t wrong. But doing that in the absence of a significant focus on improving lives, making a positive impact, and changing the world for the better? That is wrong, and we’re actively making improvements to do better.

Getting on Shark Tank is cool, but saving lives, addressing inequality, and setting up underserved groups for future success is even cooler. That’s not to say you can’t aim for both; it just takes a bit of awareness. I’m glad I’ve broadened mine, thanks to the candid perspectives of that bored 17-year-old and others like him.

Wall Street Investment Banker → Entrepreneur & Startup Consultant. “Top 10 Entrepreneurs of 2020” Yahoo Finance. CEO of Beta Bowl. Mom of 3 furbabies ❤

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